A survivor of a family massacre revisits the case as an adult.
Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Starring Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, and Christina Hendricks
Review by Jon Kissel
Dark Places almost immediately loses me from its opening frames, and proceeds to lose me a few minutes later. Young Libby is introduced from the first-person view as she goes to her mom’s bedroom, and I think this is a fundamentally cheap way to create atmosphere and identify the viewer with the character. So is narration, which adult Libby is saddled with copious amounts. Where Dark Places demonstrates what it thinks of its viewer’s intelligence is when Theron first appears onscreen alongside the chyron of Adult Libby. Paquet-Brenner is digging himself a deep, deep hole within the first few minutes of his film. The story is that of a mystery, and that chyron is the level of sleuthing the viewer is being asked to do.
As regards characterization, things don’t get much better from there. Libby’s narration, droning on about how damaged and asocial she is, is slow-played by her actual actions, which largely seem perfectly reasonable for anyone, much less a witness to the deaths of her family. She is justifiably unnerved and angry by being brought to Wirth’s club, full of murderino’s dressed as various serial killers and victims, except for the top floor where all the serious people are. Why would Wirth have her, of all people, meet him there, except for the opportunity to showcase a dingy and complicated scene for Paquet-Brenner’s resume? In the case of young Ben, the film openly engages with the Satanic Panic that helped to put him away, but its version of complicating the character as more than a martyr is to make him an actual Satanist, or at least a knock-off of the public perception of one. He does do rituals, he does pray to Satan, and he does murder animals, to say nothing of his girlfriend, played by Moretz, who is even more Satan-y than he is and ultimately becomes a tribute to the dangers of…. Reefer Madness!. This is like suggesting there were real witches in Salem, or that Joe McCarthy was right but overzealous. Maybe I’m still basking in the afterglow of Hail Satan, but I’m not open to giving the fearmongers an inch, documentary or not.
More than anything, Dark Places infuriates with its getting off on withholding. Characters frequently know more than whoever they’re talking to, in the past and the present, they suggest as much, and then they just refuse to say anymore. This wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t tip it every time. Wirth knows more about the case than he’s willing to share with Libby. Ben’s hiding stuff from Libby she’s just not ready to know. Everyone knows more about Ben’s dad than he does, and everyone knows more about Ben’s alleged crimes than his mom does. Some of this is a weak attempt at building out the mystery and making several culprits seem possible (Moretz’s dad seemed a worthy possibility but he’s never onscreen despite how much she talks about him), but it’s the same attempt over and over again, and I can see the strings.
This is a bad movie. Paquet-Brenner was perhaps the worst choice to bring the source material to life, as he has no vision and no talent for adapting what was probably a narration-heavy book into a visual medium. I can’t even say the talented cast makes the best of a bad situation. Perhaps Hendricks elevates her role into something acceptable, and Stoll works pretty well as adult Ben, but the rest are flat and perfunctory. At the end of the day, I really hated that chyron. D+